I bought two wool blazers at Hartville Goodwill recently, both made of Harris tweed. One is a muted brown and the other muted green, so typical of the British Isles, warm and comforting, connecting me to my Scottish ancestry and the traditional music I love. The label in the brown coat declares, “Handwoven 100 percent pure Scottish wool … dyed, spun, handwoven and finished in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland,” and the label of the green coat includes the words “The Harris Tweed Authority Certification Trade Mark.”
It’s easy to find tweed jackets made from any old commonplace machine-spun wool, but because a perambulating Celtic musician such as I rarely happens upon one made from handwoven Scottish wool I considered myself fortunate to find not one but two. These jackets sell for a few hundred dollars new these days, and my thrift store find set me to wondering if the wool is still hand-woven.
My “Encyclopaedia Britannica” 1954 edition calls tweed an all-wool fabric of coarse and open texture, but having a soft feel, produced in Lewis and other islands off the northwest coast of Scotland. Although Harris is connected to Lewis, the two jointly designated Lewis and Harris, mountainous Harris comprises the southern section of the island of Lewis but has a southerly portion connected by an isthmus to the northerly section. Lewis and Harris lies in the remote Outer Hebrides off the northwest coast of Scotland with an area of 195 square miles. The Hebrides were the scene of frequent raids by Scandinavian settlers starting in the 6th century and were ceded by Norway to Scotland in the 13th century. That Norse heritage can be seen in the name of the chief town of Lewis and Harris, Stornoway, where the yarn is milled.
The Hebrides are also called the Western Isles, their ancient name Ebudae, and their population in 1991 was 31,000. The Little Minch Strait separates the Outer Hebrides from the Inner. More than 40 islands, only a few inhabited, comprise the archipelago, and the original inhabitants were Celts. The economy centers on farming, fishing and weaving, the latter noted especially for Harris tweed.
True Harris tweeds, says EB, are made by cottars (peasants or farm laborers who occupy a cottage and sometimes a small holding of land in return for services) and crofters (small tenant farmers) who use the best grades of native blackface or Cheviot wool in the natural colors, dyed with natural vegetable dyes. The fleece wool is scoured, combed and spun into worsted threads (yarn made from long fibers) by the primitive distaff method of hand-spinning, then woven on primitive hand looms in the homes, hence the term “homespun tweed.”
“Tweed” is possibly a corruption of the Scots word “tweel” and English “twill.” The Scots Dialect Dictionary, published in 1911 and reprinted in 1988, gives the definitions for tweddle, to work cloth so the woof seems to cross the warp vertically; and tweel, to twill, to weave cloth diagonally.
EB says Harris tweeds are distinguished for their great durability and a peculiar peaty odor, which is simulated in imitations. The superiority of homemade over machine-made is said to be due to the use of long stapled wool in the homespun yarn, spun with a little more twist. Machine-made is sometimes made of a mix of wool and shoddy (reclaimed wool) and spun with less twist. Very cheap and inferior imitations are made of a mix of cotton and shoddy.
The Hebrides, according to “Scotland and her Tartans” by Alexander Fulton, are the home of Clan Macleod. The clan arose from Leod, son of Olaf the Black, Norse king of Man in 1230, who had two sons, From Tormod (or Norman), whose descendants are the Macleods of Harris and Dunvegan, and Torquil, who begat the Macleods of Lewis and Raasay. The island and chiefship of Lewis passed by marriage to the Mackenzies, earls of Cromartie, at the beginning of the 17th century.
So can we still say that Harris tweed is handwoven in these times? The Harris Tweed Authority’s website, http://www.harristweed.org/, assures us it is so: “The rare character and beauty of Harris Tweed is attributable to the fact that is the only fabric produced in commercial quantities by truly traditional methods anywhere in the world.” From sheep of the bleak western isles to a small Ohio thrift store have come two jackets of Scottish wool to wrap me in history, warmth and tradition.
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